East, Southeast Asia had record methamphetamine seizures last year. Profits remain in the billions

East, Southeast Asia had record methamphetamine seizures last year. Profits remain in the billions

BANGKOK (AP) — East and Southeast Asia are awash in record amounts of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said in a new report Tuesday. It traced their source largely to the cross-border region known as the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet.

The region is historically known for growing opium and hosting many of the labs that convert it to heroin.

“We have become used to record seizures, but the scale meth production in the Golden Triangle has now reached is massive. So are the profits generated,” Benedikt Hofmann, UNODC’s deputy regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told The Associated Press. “For East and Southeast Asia, we are now looking at something closer to $80 billion per year feeding back into the region’s illicit economies.”

The Golden Triangle area has seen decades of political instability.

Myanmar’s frontier regions are largely lawless and exploited by drug producers and traffickers. In recent decades, it has become the region’s epicenter for illegal amphetamine products. A 2021 military takeover that unseated the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and triggered armed resistance nationwide further destabilized the country.

The new report said the total amount of methamphetamine seized in East and Southeast Asia reached a record 190 tons in 2023. Some 89% of that came from Southeast Asia, with much of that from the Golden Triangle.

The 1.1 billion seized methamphetamine tablets, weighing 98.3 tons, were the most ever reported for the region, as were the 90 tons of seized crystal methamphetamine, the report said.

Even regional seizures of the party drug ecstasy, though representing a very small portion of the illicit synthetic drugs trafficked in the region, reached record levels last year of over 26.7 million tablets, mostly originating from Europe, the report said.

It also highlighted the increasing appearance in recent years of ketamine, a powerful anesthetic used for patients undergoing surgery but recently employed for treating depression and anxiety, as well as for recreational use.

The U.N. report said networks that make and traffic ketamine have diversified their business model and supply channels, moving from other parts of East and Southeast Asia into the Golden Triangle area of Myanmar and, more recently, into other countries in the lower Mekong River basin.

The region’s production of methamphetamine is concentrated in eastern Myanmar’s Shan State — the heartland of the Golden Triangle — especially in areas known as Special Regions where ethnic minorities with their own armies enjoy some privileges of self-government, the report said.

“The illicit drug manufacturing activity is undertaken by Asian organized crime groups who have partnered with armed groups in Shan,” it said.

Myanmar’s northern and eastern border regions have also become notorious for harboring major organized crime operations in casinos involving online scams, illegal gambling and human trafficking.

“The growing convergence of drug trafficking and emerging forms of organized crime in the Mekong is a major concern,” said UNODC’s Hofmann. “An online casino may be used to launder proceeds from the drug economy, while the same building may house a scam center – all in the hands of one criminal group which offers additional criminal services via Telegram and other channels.”

The report also said drugs originating from Myanmar are increasingly being smuggled to other countries along maritime routes. The drugs are sent as far as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand and other Pacific nations.

“Trafficking routes combining complex land-based and maritime corridors have become more common, essentially creating super-highways for large drug shipments out of the Mekong, many of which go undetected,” Hofmann said.